The Pre-Raphaelites loved the Lady of Shalott. Oh they loooooved her, couldn’t get enough of her, painted her multiple times, continually re-conceiving and reworking her story and image. Even Tennyson published two separate versions of his great poem, one in 1833 and one in 1842.
The Lady of Shalott is loosely based in Arthurian legend and tells of a mysterious woman (a fairy? Lady Elaine? A princess? Her identity is never quite clear) who lives in a tower on the island of Shalott, surrounded by lilies in the midst of the river to Camelot. She lives and works under a menacing enchantment:
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
Unable to engage with the outside world, expressly forbidden even to look directly at it, she has set a mirror on a wall opposite the window, so she can watch the events of the world around her reflected there, and she weaves what she sees into a tapestry. She watches seasons change, flowers grow, people passing by in their work and travels, and young lovers walking together. The two versions of the poem differ slightly in their description of her interiority. The earlier version paints her as a fairy queen, cheerfully singing while she works, while the later version is ever so slightly more sinister, with its talk of nameless whispers warning her of her doom.
The Lady herself is a bit of a cipher (the earlier version of the poem explicitly questions whether anyone has ever even seen her through the window of her tower), but she records in her tapestry the everyday events of a world that grows and changes while she sits constant in her tower. It is a world that contains pairs and groups of people: farmers and abbots, market girls and sailors, shepherds in fields and pairs of knights in armor marching towards Camelot. At first she seems content to weave without ever stopping, until we finally hear her speak for the first time:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
That first stirring of unhappiness at the sight of lovers embracing segues to the grand arrival on the scene of Sir Lancelot, who gets four whole stanzas all to himself. After the twilight and shadows that end the previous stanza, he is like a burst of light, his own cosmos, compared at different times to the sun, the stars, and burning flame. He appears like a glittering god in the Lady’s mirror, with his armor, shield, and bugle flashing in the sunlight, singing as his horse marches past her tower to Camelot.
His appearance, shining though it may be, is for The Lady not a sunrise, but a meteor crashing into her life:
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
With her tapestry destroyed, her peace shattered, and a sudden storm rising with billowing rain and wind, she leaves her tower and walks to the river. The two versions of the poem differ the most here at the end: in the earlier version she moves with deliberation, dressing herself in a white gown and sumptuous jewels,
Her wide eyes fix’d on Camelot,
Though the squally east-wind keenly
Blew, with folded arms serenely
By the water stood the queenly
Lady of Shalott.
With a steady stony glance—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance—
She look’d down to Camelot.
By contrast, and likely in keeping with Victorian morality as regards gender norms and suicide, the later version portrays her moving to the water in a trance, almost like an automaton: once she chooses to look out at Sir Lancelot and Camelot, she is powerless under the curse to do anything but walk to the river and the boat waiting for her there.
The Victorians and Pre-Raphaelites loved painting themselves some dead or dying women, and since they also loved The Lady of Shalott so much, I think you can guess where this is going:
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
The boat arrives at Camelot, and again the earlier and later versions of the ballad differ markedly. The earlier version ends with the Lady’s own words in a note she leaves behind:
They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
The wellfed wits at Camelot.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
The Lady of Shalott.’
While the later version, which I find blood-chillingly cavalier, ends with Lancelot’s words:
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
I know I just dunked on the Victorians for their love of portraying beautiful dying women, and it’s true that the appeal of this poem for some people is the extremely patriarchal moral one could draw: it is better to stay sheltered at home with your domestic work, where you can observe dim reflections of the rich world outside, because otherwise you’ll DIE. I mean dang, we’re still grappling with that moral (see “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die,” Mean Girls, 2004). I think there’s more going on, and I certainly don’t want to claim the male Pre-Raphaelites were inventing feminism, but I do think it’s interesting that in both versions of the poem it’s very clear that the Lady’s curse is just kind of … there. She knows there’s a prophecy, and she knows something bad will happen, but she doesn’t know what will happen or why. It’s astoundingly, frustratingly unfair and unfixable. There’s no kiss-of-a-handsome-prince will break this very specific curse; instead, it’s just “you’re doomed, not sure how, don’t look out the window, don’t be around other people, never stop weaving, and you’ll live.”
That moral, “be content with the reflected image of a thing, rather than the thing itself that you can see and feel and hold,” packs a real punch for me. For many 19th century artists and writers, the curse on the Lady of Shalott was a metaphor for the plight of the artist: should an artist shut themselves away from the world and focus solely on their art? What if they leave their safe tower, only for the tide of everyday life to sweep away their gifts? Would they irrevocably lose something that made them themselves? Would critics see their later works and observe only “hm, pretty”, without acknowledging the richness of their previous works?
I’ve had friends afraid to seek help for mental health issues because they fear how treatment will affect their art. I’ve had friends afraid to leave bad jobs or bad relationships because they fear that what they’ll find outside the job or the relationship will be worse. And me, I shy away from intimacy, convinced that if I open that door, something that is me at my very innermost core will be irretrievably lost. It’s not a good feeling all the time, here in the tower, focused on things I know and can control, but I’ve woven a life where I can support myself and have my cat and write my blog and watch other relationships at a remove. I see my loved ones grow and change and become different people and break and rebuild and start again, more beautiful and more wholly themselves than ever before, and yet something in me throws up a wall I can’t yet think my way through. I don’t want someone bursting in and exploding my life, such that I can’t get it back when they pass me by. And as much as I fear what feels like an inevitable giving away of my most true self, I self-centeredly shudder to think that someone might look back at the sum total of my solitary life and say “eh, what a pretty little life” and turn away.
Because man, what a dick Lancelot comes off as here. How patronizing and dismissive of her, and what a faint blessing he offers her. How callous and cruel this world is, to hang an unknowable but unchangeable doom over someone, and then to kill her for wanting the same pleasures and comforts that others have. Lancelot bursts into her mirror’s reflection and explodes her ordered life. It’s implied she falls in love with him and that’s why she can’t help but look back toward Camelot. Why, because a woman pursues a relationship, rather than waiting in a tower for the prince to come to her, should she be condemned?
Ultimately what resonates most strongly for me is that the Lady’s situation is the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-don’t reality of so many women’s lives. Lean in but don’t be too aggressive about it. Have a child but don’t let go of your career. Have a career but don’t be a cold childless monster. Don’t be a prude but don’t be a slut. Be thin but make sure you can eat like a guy. Don’t be too thin, too curvy, too muscular, too lean. Be yourself but don’t make anyone else uncomfortable. Give as much of yourself as you can but don’t expect the same in return, that’s needy. Don’t focus on losing weight, but make sure you’re healthy at all costs! These impossible expectations are complicated and magnified ten- or a hundred-fold for people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities or who live with chronic illness, and others who live outside the dominant and privileged cultural groups. It is grossly callous to dismiss other people’s lives off-handedly, and grossly unjust to judge someone for making a choice in an unbearable situation, for wanting more, for pursuing more.
I hate that Tennyson took away the Lady’s farewell when he revised the poem, the only words she speaks addressed to other people, her summing up of her own life. We deserve to live our lives without unknown curses waiting to strike us down. We deserve companionship and love. And we deserve to tell our own stories.
I am half sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott.
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Basque and high waist brief: Celeste by Gabi Fresh x Playful Promises, 34C-42H (UK sizes) / 34C-42K (US sizes), US 12-24
Caftan: Kaylin by Boudoir by d’Lish (pictured wearing the 55″ length)
Photography: Sylvie Rosokoff